Georgia’s new authorities have arrested formerly influential government member and President Saakashvili’s one of the closest allies, Bacho Akhalaia, and two senior army commanders in connection to alleged case of abusing soldiers a year ago.
Bacho Akhalaia, who was defense minister in 2009-2012, was arrested after about four hours of questioning in the prosecutor’s office last night.
About five hours later, at dawn on Wednesday Chief of Joint Staff of the Georgian Armed Forces, Brigadier-General Giorgi Kalandadze and commander of 4th infantry brigade Zurab Shamatava in connection to the same case.
All three men deny allegations, according to their lawyers.
President Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) condemned the arrests as launch of “political retributions” by the new authorities against the representatives of previous administration.
The Georgian Dream lawmakers, however, said the arrests had nothing to do with politics and were part of a campaign of “restoring justice”, one of the pre-election promises under which PM Bidzina Ivanishvili’s coalition ran the election campaign.
Investigation under which Akhalaia and two army commanders were arrested was launched on November 5 based on part 3 of article 333 of the criminal code, which deals with cases of “exceeding official powers” that result into “insult of a victim’s dignity”.
Punishment for the crime under this provision might be imprisonment from five to eight years.
Investigation into the case was launched based on testimonies of several former servicemen of 4th infantry brigade, according to the chief prosecutor’s office.
In written witness statements, released by the prosecutor’s office, five former servicemen of 4th infantry brigade, whose identities have not been made public, recount their mistreatment by Akhalaia and two arrested army commanders in the Ministry of Defense and then in a military base in Vaziani in late October, 2011.
According to one former serviceman of the 4th infantry brigade, he was brought into Akhalaia’s office in the Ministry of Defense where the ex-defense minister played on a laptop a covertly recorded audio in which this serviceman was heard swearing at MoD and army leadership in a private conversation with some other soldiers in a military base. After that, according to this testimony, Akhalaia hit the serviceman “with a blunt side of knife in the head.” Another former soldier from the same brigade recounts in his testimony that he saw Akhalaia, Kalandadze and Shamatava beating and verbally insulting several servicemen on the same day in a military base.
Chief prosecutor, Archil Kbilashvili, said on November 7 that these witness statements by five former soldiers, plus results of questioning of Akhalaia himself created “valid assumption” that crime had been committed.
Based on this assumption a decision was made to detain Akhalaia and two army commanders, Kbilashvili said and added that investigation prosecutors were working on gathering other evidence.
Kbilashvili said that one of the reasons behind the detention was that there was a probability that Akhalaia and two army commanders could have obstructed the investigation by possibly influencing the witnesses.
For that reason, Kbilashvili said, the prosecution would likely file a motion to the court requesting pre-trial detention of the three men pending investigation.
The three men have not yet been charged – deadline of bringing formal charges expires at 11:50pm local time on November 8 in case of Akhalaia, according to his lawyer.
Kbilashivli also said that since becoming chief prosecutor, his office received “several dozen” appeals from citizens requesting investigation of various alleged wrongdoings by Akhalaia while he served as prison system chief and then as defense minister.
The chief prosecutor said that these appeals were currently reviewed by his office, but they did not represent part of the case based on which Akhalaia was arrested.
The chief prosecutor made the remarks while speaking at the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s (GPB) unscheduled program late on Wednesday afternoon during which Kbilashvili was questioned about the case by two anchors of GPB’s two major political talk shows.
In separate remarks late on November 7, Kbilashvili said that “new details” and “additional evidence” were emerging, which would make the prosecution’s case against Akhalaia and two army commanders stronger.
UNM Cries Foul Over Arrests
Kbilashvili also said that the chief prosecutor’s office decided to make public witness statements in order to counter possible “perceptions” that the arrests were politically motivated.
The issue was debated in the Parliament on November 7 during which lawmakers from President Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party condemned the arrests as “launch of the campaign of political persecutions” by the new authorities.
“This is a full-scale political persecution and retribution,” UNM lawmaker Pavle Kublashvili said.
“It’s the first major test for the new authorities, which will show whether they would act in frames of the law or would pursue political persecutions,” MP Davit Bakradze of UNM, a former parliamentary speaker, said.
Secretary of National Security Council, Giga Bokeria, said the arrests were source of “alarm” and said: “Use of the prosecutor’s office for political purposes and for political retribution is evident.”
PM Bidzina Ivanishvili said on November 7 “these are not political arrests.”
“If illegal acts have been committed – and I think they have been, law enforcement agencies will continue restoring justice in the country,” PM Ivanishvili told journalists. “I will do my best to ensure that the law, not some political party or force, reigns supreme in this country.”
UNM also claims that the arrest of army chief of staff Giorgi Kalandadze was related to attempts by new Defense Minister Irakli Alasania to appoint his loyal figure on the post of chief of the joint staff of the armed forces.
After the new government, led by PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, took office, new Defense Minister Irakli Alasania said on October 31 that consultations were ongoing with the President’s office about replacement of Kalandadze. Appointment of army chief of staff is within the President’s authority. Alasania reportedly wanted his ally Vakhtang Kapanadze to take the post of chief of army staff; but on November 2 Alasania announced that Kapanadze, who was chief of army staff for six months in 2004, was appointed as deputy chief of joint staff of the Georgian armed forces.
Akhalaia, 32, served as deputy public defender in 2004-2005; prison system chief in 2005-2008; deputy defense minister in 2008-2009 and then defense minister in 2009-2012; in July, 2012 he became Interior Minister, but had to resign in September amid prison abuse scandal.
First major allegation about Akhalaia emerged in 2006 when he was the prison system chief; at the time he was accused by then public defender Sozar Subari, who is now the minister in charge of penitentiary, as well as some human rights groups of triggering riot in Tbilisi prison in March, 2006 which was cracked down by special purpose units in which seven inmates died. According to one leaked U.S. embassy cable, in 2009 after Akhalaia was appointed as defense minister U.S. diplomats raised before President Saakashvili the issue of Akhalaia’s “poor human rights record” while serving as chief of prison system.
After the October 1 parliamentary elections, Akhalaia reportedly left the country, but on November 5 he announced that he returned back to Georgia and was ready to answer all the questions about “absurd” and “idiotic” allegations voiced against him. Next day he was summoned by the prosecutor’s office for questioning and then arrested.